If I were to ask the inhabitants of Cyberspace to advise my newly minted 21-year-old son about his adult life, one of the chief answers lobbed back would be the ubiquitous charge to “follow your heart.” So, given that how-tos are all the rage among us humans (how to love, how to make money, how to win facebook friends and influence people), I thought I’d instruct him on how to go about it.
Ah, the “heart.” Squishy word. Better take a whack-a-mole shot at defining terms. When a thing is at “the heart” of something, it’s central, core to the very thread of life. The heart has to beat or life is over. To say, “this is my heart” is to say that you’re about to comment on something fundamental in your psyche. A “feeling” you ascribe to your “heart” is hard to locate: it’s physical, it’s emotional, it’s spiritual, it’s smack in the middle of the felt reality of being human. Love the Lord with all your “heart” goes the great command, and we’re supposed to get a new “heart” somewhere along the way. Pick a definition: “seat of the emotions,” “that which you find when you relearn to play,” or maybe just “love.”
The call to follow the heart assumes that at some deep, foundational level, we are–finally–wise. And our urging to this “followship” suggests that our wisdom resides in this “heart” we’re trying to locate and follow. Problem is, it seems to be a challenge to get to; it lays hidden beneath layers of something else, layers of some other substance I’ll call not-heart and not-wisdom. The Proverbs writer tells us to get wisdom (though it costs us all we have), which suggests that not-wisdom presents alternate possibilities on a fairly regular basis. How does not-wisdom present itself? Certainly not-wisdom wouldn’t be a problem if it showed up in ugly clothes, noxious odors, and crass, brutish behavior. How else does not-wisdom present itself except in feelings and urges that remind you of something, namely, the heart?
You protest that when we urge each other to follow our hearts, surely we don’t mean to yield constantly to the impulse of the moment, to that which feels good, to that which pleases, do we? But this is confusing: the words “impulse,” “instinct,” “pleasure,” and especially the word “feeling” (most of all when the word “passion” is attached), are packed in the basket of meanings assigned to following the heart, along with surges of fervor and urgent resolves of tension, sexual and otherwise. So moving forward let’s acknowledge that the language of “following the heart” is murky and that to discern the true nature of a “heart” requires something other than not-wisdom, regardless of how it feels.
Terribly unsatisfying line of thought.
Proverbs again: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but it’s way ends in death.” Talk about tossing a bummer-bomb right into the middle of the discussion. So here’s a question: Does each person’s “right way” necessarily lead to life, if only they find their “heart” and follow it? Are “hearts” and “right ways” different? Well, they must be, because we know that to follow hearts leads to life, never to death, yes? Unless, of course, the Proverbs writer was just wrong.
Okay, I’ll stop.
The sage advice about following the heart is true enough, I think, depending (heavily) on what you mean. Even as we know that there is some sense in which following the heart is wise, we also know, equally, that the heart is fickle, tricky, elusive, and deceptive. The word “heart” encompasses all of this; if we go deeply enough into our consciences, and sit quietly, we know it’s true. Wisdom, meaning, context, discernment are needed if “the heart” is to be heard and “followed” in life-giving ways.
Reading back through this, I feel like I’m trying to dance a ballet in oversized wooden clogs.
When people tell us to follow our hearts, I find the Apostle Paul’s reminder that good and evil travel together helpful. The heart, as many speak of it, does have it’s wisdom, connected as it is to the source of life. We are God-designed, in my view, and His image in us remains, and there is wisdom and life there. And yes, it’s emotion and longing, the play instinct and good impulse, roaring passion and spirit, as well as the quiet listening to conscience, the little voice that whispers. But if we’re honest, the heart is also a dissembler, a peddler of not-heart and not-wisdom, a wanter of what it wants, engaging in all manner of emotional and rational backflips to get just that–what it wants.
“My precious” comes to mind.
Thomas Merton was the first in my reading to suggest that my heart not only belongs to God–it’s hidden in Him. That “the heart” which we think is our heart is an illusion, layered by sin, poor impulse, mistaken identity, and passionate energy for that identity by which some fling themselves far into death. History seems clear in its evidential support of the proverbs writer: there are ways which seem right to us, best to us, most fitting, most of all that’s good, that in the end, lead to death.
So God holds my true heart? The natural question is this: and where, and how do I find him?
Ask Cyberspace, and guess what you’ll hear.
“Follow your heart.”
Then I remember…I do not pray to my own heart…